Confession and the grille

Many years ago at a Confirmation class, we asked the candidates to note down what might put them off going to Confession. There were various answers from the group but one stood out as the most common: "I don’t like the priest to know who I am." These were teenagers of 12-13 years of age and it did not surprise me to know that they wanted to be anonymous. However the confessional in my Church did actually have a grille: it was not perfect in that the penitent had to walk past an open space where the priest could see – although I always shielded my eyes to make it obvious that the penitent could be anonymous if desired.

When I mentioned this to the youngsters, they did not avert to the possibility of the priest perhaps seeing them as they walked past, they said that they did not know that they were allowed to kneel down behind the grille. That was a good reality-check for me as a priest. These young people had been taught for their first confession to sit opposite the priest. Nobody had ever mentioned that they could be anonymous if they wished. As young children it did not bother them, but now, as self-conscious teenagers, they found it a real problem.

In fact I built a new confessional in the traditional style with two doors, a wall between with a grille covered by a curtain. If people want to be identified, I advise them to say so explicitly but the structure of the confessional makes sure that the sacrament is not confused with some amateur psychotherapeutic encounter. You can see the penitent's side in the above photo. I'm quite proud of it because it has a soft chair for people who can't kneel, and if the chair and kneeler are removed, there is plenty of room for a wheelchair so disabled people also get the right to go anonymously. (There is always someone around to move the things.)

Now someone might argue that the penitent has the right to go to confession face-to-face. In fact, that is not the case. Canon law stipulates that the penitent has the right to a fixed grille - and an authoritative interpretation also stipulates that the confessor may insist on there being a fixed grille. (For chapter and verse, see my post The right to a fixed grille.) Such an arrangement was long considered a matter of prudence in the Church with St Charles Borromeo particularly insisting on it. The abandonment of the grille precisely at a time when moral standards were being compromised both within and outside the Church was foolish.

Fr Z posted on this subject the other day with a mischievous suggestion that if no grille is provided, a penitent might write to the Pastor saying that their offertory contribution had to be reduced in order to budget for gas to drive to a monastery where one was provided.

Another amusing story was told years ago by, I think, The Crescat, of a penitent going to confession in a full-face motorcycle crash helmet. When the priest suggested removing it, the penitent pleaded the desire to confess anonymously.

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